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As Timor-Leste heads to the polls, Armanda Ferriera remembers the cost of the country's independence

ABC News - May 20, 2023

Marian Faa, Dili – When 63-year-old Armanda Ferriera talks about her country's struggle for independence, tears spill from her eyes.

She wipes them away forcefully, as if trying to erase the painful memories they hold – these tears are angry tears.

"It's very difficult for me to talk about that time," she tells the ABC from a village just outside the capital Dili.

As a teenager, she says she was taken hostage, raped and violently beaten by Indonesian forces that invaded Timor-Leste 10 days after the country first declared independence from Portugal in 1975.

When Ms Ferriera managed to escape into the jungle, she watched friends die of starvation.

For her, the anniversary of Timor-Leste's independence – which finally came, this time from Indonesia in 2002 – is full of mixed emotions.

"I'm happy because now we have freedom and we're not afraid anymore," she says. "But at the same time, I feel sorry for my friends who sacrificed their life for this country."

As South-East Asia's youngest nation celebrates its coming of age, Timor-Leste is preparing to hold a historic national election on Sunday. Here, democracy is not taken for granted and political allegiances run deep.

"Win or lose, I'm voting for Fretilin because people suffered and people died in Fretilin's name," Ms Ferriera said.

She referring to Timor-Leste's oldest major political party, Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin as it's known.

Party leader Mari Alkatiri became the nation's first prime minister in 2002 after years of exile during the Indonesian occupation, and is vying for another shot at the top job.

Speaking with the ABC after a massive campaign rally, Mr Alkatiri said he felt sad about the state of the nation 21 years on. "People are still living in poverty," he said.

To win, he will have to defeat a fellow resistance hero: former guerilla fighter and the country's first president, Xanana Gusmao.

Local opinion polls have his party – National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, or CNRT – tipped as the favourite.

Famed for his charisma, Mr Gusmao entertained a crowd of thousands on the last day of campaigning on Friday. "We need to solve the problems of the state ... people are tired," he told ABC.

Youth hold the key

This election is likely to be the final showdown for the two freedom fighters, who are now bitter rivals.

"They are certainly getting older now," says Swinburne University's Michael Leach, an expert in Timorese politics. "Xanana Gusmao will be 80 in 2026. And the others are not far behind him."

It's a factor that makes each of the men more desperate to win. But their future is largely in the hands of Timorese youth, who make up about 75 per cent of the voting population.

For this cohort of citizens, analysts say a strong plan to increase job opportunities and improve education may hold more weight than resistance-era clout.

Timor-Leste is gripped by poverty, unemployment and poor standards of health and education. Many young people are forced to move to Australia, South Korea and Europe to find work.

"I came here to participate in this campaign because I know that CNRT have a great future for the students and they have a big plan for our studies," says first-time voter Fabrizio Noronha.

Economic crisis looms

While both major parties appear confident, it's unlikely either will gain an outright majority after Sunday's vote, meaning the winner will be left to form a coalition with one of the minor parties.

Then they will have the difficult job of bringing Timor-Leste back from the edge of a fiscal cliff, with oil and gas revenues expected to run dry in the next decade.

"It could actually very soon send the Timorese into a crisis – definitely an economic crisis, and likely a political crisis," says Andrea Fahey, an expert in Timorese politics from the Australian National University.

For Mr Gusmao, the solution lies in untapped oil and gas fields that span the ocean between his country and Australia.

Timor-Leste, which has a 56 per cent stake in the Greater Sunrise Project, has been locked in a stalemate with Australian mining company Woodside Energy over whether to process the product in Timor-Leste or Darwin.

Mr Gusmao is adamant the oil and gas must be processed domestically, despite the huge cost of developing new infrastructure.

China has not publicly expressed interest in co-funding the development, but Professor Leach says Australian officials worry that may change. "This is the sort of thing that keeps some people awake at night in Canberra," he says.

Last year, after winning Timor-Leste's presidential election with the backing of CNRT, Jose Ramos-Horta said he'd discussed the idea with China and would "absolutely" consider a partnership if a better deal wasn't on the table.

But Xanana Gusmao is confident the country can draw on an existing $US17 billion ($25.55 billion) petroleum fund, suggesting Woodside Energy could take out a loan from the Timorese government.

"This is not a problem for us," he says. "We will pay because from the revenues the money will come."

On the other hand, Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri is taking a more cautious approach.

While he's expressed support for bringing the oil and gas onshore – if it's commercially and practically feasible – Mr Alkatiri says the focus should be on developing new income streams for Timor-Leste.

"I am against the full dependence [on] oil and gas ... we need to diversify the economy," he says.

It's a sentiment echoed by Dili-based independent analyst Guteriano Neves, although he's not convinced by the political rhetoric.

"Both parties recognise the fact that we are dependent too much on the petroleum," he says.

"But if you dig deeper, I haven't seen any convincing difference between most of the political campaigns. In Timor-Leste, [politics] tend to be so abstract and superficial."

Whether or not voters agree will be revealed on Sunday, when almost 900,000 citizens head to the polls. But in the meantime, they're celebrating their right to vote – and their independence.

On Friday the celebrations took on a very Australian tinge, with six Australians receiving an Order of Timor-Leste, the highest honour in the South-East Asian nation.

Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks and Australian barrister Bernard Collaery were among them.

Mr Collaery was charged with conspiring to release classified information about Australia's alleged bugging of Timorese parliament offices to gain an advantage in maritime border negotiations in 2004.

The charges against him were dropped last year. In an interview with the ABC on Friday, he called on the Australian government – and former government representatives – to apologise for what he said was their "outrageous conduct".

Back in Dili, music and dancing have erupted in the streets all week, with people hanging out of cars and off the back of motorbikes, waving flags and honking their horns.

Even a "Fretilin crocodile" could be spotted in the midst of the campaigns.

"Elections in Timor-Leste are like a big party," Andrea Fahey says.

They are celebrating democracy and independence in their own special way.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-05-20/timor-leste-heads-to-polls-but-brutal-scars-remain/10236850